6 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety this Christmas

– Without Using Alcohol or Food –

At Motivation, we meet so many clients who experience social anxiety coming up to the festive season. Unfortunately it’s rife. Many people want to avoid office parties or even pretend to be sick for certain family occasions. The main reason for this avoidance strategy is not because they don’t enjoy the company of others, but really is because they want to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being judged or scrutinized by others.

Most of us experience these feelings from time to time, but they can be particularly heightened at Christmas due to the pressure for everything to be ‘perfect’ and that we must be happy at all times. Under this veil of pressure, we second-guess ourselves and we ask, ‘Am I wearing the right clothes?’ ‘Am I slim enough, attractive enough or funny enough?’ ‘Will we say the right thing?’

But we don’t have to accept this situation or to think that ‘I’m just not good in social situations’. Instead, we should accept that it’s normal and that, thankfully, there is something we can all do to help offset these feelings. Have a go of following our six ways out of social anxiety and you should be feeling much more able to enjoy those social gatherings this year. After all, they are meant to be fun!

Unhelpful Solutions

We know that anxious feelings – if not acknowledged and dealt with – can often lead to many people downing too much alcohol or turning to the chocolate as a way of coping (read our four tips to ban emotional eating here). We know, ultimately, these things actually make us feel worse. In fact, when feeling anxious, the last thing we should do is turn to these ‘crutches’ as the only real answer to reduce anxiety is to tackle it at its root – which is our thoughts.

I have a philosophy that us Irish suffer from low confidence and social anxiety more than some of our European counterparts which could explain, in part, our over-reliance on alcohol for ‘Dutch courage’. That’s why we, perhaps, have to be especially mindful of dealing with our anxiety instead of reaching for another drink or stuffing our uncomfortable feelings down with food.

So, What Works? Here’s our 6 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety this Christmas

1. Acknowledge your feelings: This is the first step that will go a long way in helping to prevent you ‘using’ the ‘drugs’ of alcohol or food (such as sugar or junk food) to process uncomfortable feelings.

Research shows that even by simply naming our emotion, and accepting that we are feeling it (without judgement) can help to reduce the intensity of the feeling. Say to yourself, ‘This event is making me feel anxious, but I know the reality is that there is no threat” and you could share that feeling with someone close to you. They may reassure you that Christmas events make many of us feel a bit on edge and that you’re not alone!

2. Find the source: Ask yourself where does your anxiety come from? Is it from the pressure to be ‘perfect’ or to look a certain way or portray a certain aura? Is it the location of the event or the circumstances (ie. if it’s a work event, do you feel the need to impress?)

Or is it the particular company that you are concerned about and, if so, what is it about them that threatens you? Do you think they are better than you in some way, or that they may look down on you? Do you think they are judging you harshly? And is this really accurate (see next point)?

3. Practise CBT on yourself: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT requires you to challenge negative, limiting beliefs. You start by asking yourself is there a more positive way of looking at the situation? And is there a more rational way to view the ‘threat’?

Perhaps one thought that could help is to imagine that everyone else at the party is feeling as nervous about it as you are (which could actually be true – not maybe for everyone, but probably for a fair few). Another CBT skill is to practise self-compassion and kindness (to yourself, firstly).

So ask, ‘Am I really unsafe here?’, ‘What would help me feel more comfortable’? Ideally you don’t avoid the event (as this can compound your social anxiety) but, instead, you could say to yourself ‘I can leave early and that’s fine’. Watch a great video on social anxiety here.

4. Look outside yourself: When we are socially anxious, we tend to spend a lot of time concentrating on our own bodily sensations during social interactions. This is because we fear that our anxiety is visible to others.

For example, we may spend time trying to judge whether we are sweating, shaking, or blushing. But the truth is that anxiety is much less visible than you imagine. Also, even if you are visibly anxious, it does not necessarily mean that you will be thought badly of. Anxiety is something we all experience and it does not make you unusual.

Take the focus off yourself if possible and really try to concentrate on the conversation you are involved in. Don’t think about how you appear or how well you are performing. Try to just be yourself rather than ‘putting on a front’. Besides, it’s impossible for everyone to like us anyway.

5. Practise deep breathing: When anxious, our breathing often becomes shallow and fast. But practicing a deep breath really does help calm you down by triggering neurons in your brain which tell the body it is time to relax.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California have identified 175 brain cells which notice the breath and alter state of mind accordingly. They can actually pick up on the differences in sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing and sobbing. So, when we force our breath to slow down and to deepen, we can almost ‘trick’ our brain into thinking we feel calmer than we actually do. See below for a guide on how to practise ‘the calm breath’.

6. Change the way you see anxiety: Many of us tend to disqualify the positives when we’re anxious. That’s because our brains actually alter when in a stressed state. So, instead of giving into all those feelings, we could start saying to ourselves, “Ah, this is my brain trying to trick me again. It thinks it’s under threat but there’s no real threat here. In fact, I might even enjoy myself here.” After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

For instance, you could trip and fall over, or you could stumble over your words. And if that did happen, would it be the end of the world? Ask yourself, will anything about what happened at this party matter in a month or two? The chances are that, even if something goes wrong, you’ll have long forgotten about it by then. This puts everything in context and helps to lessen the anxiety. Also, it can pave the way for a new belief system where you consider that you may actually enjoy yourself and – surprise, surprise – that is often the case!

To Finish – A Calming Breath

Try the 4-7-8 breath:

1. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

2. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.

4. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

See more on deep breathing here.

As we always advise, you’ve six options above: choose one or more and work your way through them. You’ll surprise yourself how easy it can be and in turn, it will be a real difference to how you approach, enjoy and celebrate Christmas.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle